Undesirable Development of Great Nicobar Island
Open letter to the President of India
The Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), comprising of former civil servants, who have held eminent positions in the Central and State Governments in the course of their careers has written an Open Letter to the President of India, on what they have termed an environment-destroying project. The group stated that they have “no affiliation with any political party but believe in impartiality, neutrality and commitment to the Constitution of India.
This letter highlights the various issues of concern regarding the development project on the island of Great Nicobar. The project proposes the construction of “an international container transhipment terminal, a large green field international airport, a township, and a solar and gas based power plant, to be set up over 16610 hectares”. This says the CCG takes up almost 16% of the island. The island is home to rare flora and fauna and the Shompen tribe, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG).
They requested that President Droupadi Murmu advise the government to “immediately stop the commencement of destructive projects in Great Nicobar.”
Excerpts from the Open Letter:
We are heartened by your recent words at the Human Rights Day celebrations on 10 December 2022, wherein you stated that the concept of justice should be expanded to include the environment. You said “just as the concept of human rights exhorts us to consider every human being as no different from ourselves, we should treat the whole living world and its habitat with respect”.
However, even as you say this, the Government of India is all set to destroy one of the most pristine habitats in the country, one which is home to various rare and endemic species, as well as to an extremely vulnerable tribe, the Shompens of Great Nicobar.
The plans for a massive development project on the island of Great Nicobar consist of an international container transhipment terminal, a large green field international airport, a township, and a solar and gas based power plant, to be set up over 16610 hectares. Considering that the entire island of Great Nicobar covers 103870 hectares, almost 16% of the island will be given over to the project. Of the total area of the island, 75100 hectares have been statutorily notified as a Tribal Reserve for the Shompen tribe, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG). These shy and isolated tribal people, who are almost on the brink of extinction, need to be handled with extreme care and sensitivity, not carelessly removed from their existing home territory and resettled elsewhere on the island to make room for the ‘development project’. The Shompens have, from time to time, experienced serious incursions by outsiders into their area. The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes is aware of this matter and has instructed the government to prevent such intrusions. Instead of taking heed of this, the government itself is now all set to make a major intrusion.
Apart from the human dimensions, there is no denying the immense adverse impact that the project will have on the ecology of the island. Great Nicobar covers a variety of unique and threatened eco systems – tropical, wet evergreen forests, mountain ranges reaching 642 metres above sea level and coastal plains. It is home to myriad species of angiosperms, gymnosperms, ferns and bryophytes, as well as to hundreds of species of fauna, many of which are rare and threatened species, not found anywhere else in the world. These include endemic or endangered species such as the crab eating macaque, the Nicobar tree shrew, the dugong, the Nicobar megapode, the saltwater crocodile, the Nicobar cricket frog and several others. All these are seriously threatened and will quite possibly be rendered extinct by the enormous ‘development project’ proposed to be taken up.
Although an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) was carried out for the project, it is clear from the published reports that the scope of the analysis was limited. The persons involved with the environmental appraisal were reportedly advised that the project was a "given" and were asked to try and minimise the impact. The airfield, being a defence project, was not even part of the mandate. No one was authorised to check if alternative arrangements and/or relocation of the project were feasible. The entire exercise seemed to presume that the project would be good for the islands and the country and lead to rapid development. We strongly believe that this presumption may not be valid.
We are pained to learn that the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has not only granted environmental and coastal regulation zone (CRZ) clearance with certain conditions, it has also given an ‘in principle’ clearance for diversion of 13075 hectares of forest land, with compensatory afforestation to be carried out in the State of Haryana. The idea of replacing the virgin forests of Great Nicobar with planted forests in Haryana would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic: 13075 acres of rich, evergreen, rain forests teeming with extraordinary flora and fauna species to be compensated with newly planted trees in the dry Aravalli hills of Haryana!
Several recent occurrences should have discouraged the government from undertaking such a major environment-destroying project. The first is the decision taken on 19 December 2022 at the Conference of Parties for the Convention for Biological Diversity, at which it was agreed, among other things, to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030; also, specifically, to protect 30% of the world’s lands, inland waters, coastal areas and oceans with emphasis on areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem functioning and services. This decision which was ratified by nearly 200 countries, including India, specifically mentions ‘reducing to near zero the loss of areas of high biodiversity importance, including ecosystems of high ecological integrity’. Considering such a commitment, it is baffling how India can even consider the loss of such an enormously ecologically important area like Great Nicobar.
The all too palpable change in the climate of India – unbelievably hot temperatures in summer, erratic rainfall, repeated cyclones, mild winters in most of the country but sharp falls in temperature in the north, should also have sent alarm signals to the government. The changes in climate throughout the country and all over the world have made it apparent to even the casual observer that a warmer world is here to stay; and that urgent measures need to be taken by the government and the people to keep the increase in temperatures to a minimum. Stopping the denudation of existing forests, especially rich, virgin rainforests and adding to the existing forest cover are obviously the major steps needed.
The subsidence of land in Joshimath is a glaring indication of the damage that unthinking development can do to the country. Destroying the forests and the ecology of Great Nicobar to set up container terminals and airports would be a mistake of the same order. The frequent prevalence of undersea quakes that occur in the oceans of that region and the resultant subsidence of land in the islands is also a major risk.
Our opposition to the proposed development in Great Nicobar should not be construed as opposition to development or technology in general. It is because of the particular vulnerability of Great Nicobar that we are concerned. Experience has shown that what starts out as a small ‘development project’ in a vulnerable locality keeps expanding inexorably, leading to a total destruction of the environment in which it is situated. The ecology and tribal people of Great Nicobar are far too precious to India and the world at large to be sacrificed on the altar of "development".
The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago is a group of rare volcanic islands with among the very few surviving rainforests in the world. Its preservation, and the conservation of some of the rarest surviving pristine tribal communities anywhere in the world, has earned for our country and our government a standing as champions of the environment in an ecologically threatened world. This carefully nurtured reputation will be totally lost in one fell swoop if this project goes forward
Having assumed the leadership of the G-20 group of nations this year, India should surely demonstrate that economic development does not, and should not, have to be at the expense of the environment, and that protecting the environment is the wisest of economic decisions.
We earnestly request you to advise your government to immediately stop the commencement of destructive projects in Great Nicobar.
Cover Photograph: Location of the four interlinked projects. Source: EIA report